Exact Editions Blog

For Librarians & Publishers


Digital Books Don’t Smell

So what?

Exactly. There is really no possible interest in this line of discussion. I cited with approval Robert Darnton’s recent piece in the New York Review of Books on the Digital Library. But I missed this truly silly paragraph:

Books also give off special smells. According to a recent survey of French students, 43 percent consider smell to be one of the most important qualities of printed books—so important that they resist buying odorless electronic books. CaféScribe, a French on-line publisher, is trying to counteract that reaction by giving its customers a sticker that will give off a fusty, bookish smell when it is attached to their computers.

Do you credit that statistic about French students? There are lots of reasons why French, Italian, English, American students do not buy electronic books but them not smelling has nothing to do with it. CaféScribe is not French, but based in Salt Lake City. I am sure that their sniffy sticker was just a publicity stunt, like their alleged poll result. So lets hear no more about the snags of odourless digital resources. Of course physical books are different and give us information that digital does not; of course historians and textual scholars should examine first editions with care and attention to every physical detail in real libraries, but there is no need to exaggerate.

Oddly enough, I revisited that paragraph of Darnton’s (having originally skipped it) reading the blog of Hugh McGuire, who some years ago launched a wonderful complement to the digital library of our future: LibriVox. Public domain talking books. Digital books probably should never have an odour, but they can certainly be more useful when they are digital and also audible.


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  1. Marketing pitch for CaféScribe:”Odourless foul files fail furiously”

  2. Actually I think there is some merit to the suggestion even though I don’t know if smell is the central issue. It rather has to do with the ‘aura’ (in the Benjamin Walter line of thinking) of a book. It sort of becomes an artifact, something that people end up being emotionally attached to. And there are also some cultural and ‘image’ implications as well. What you have displayed on your bookcases seems to ‘say’ a lot about you.

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